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It's a Bird, It's a Grouch, It's Caroll Spinney!

8 Nov, 2006 By: John Latchem

Millions of parents let Caroll Spinney into their homes each week without even realizing it. The longtime puppeteer and animator is best known for portraying Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch since the long-running edutainment series “Sesame Street” debuted in 1969.

Classic moments from the first five seasons of the show recently made their DVD debut as part of Sesame Street: Old School Vol. 1 — 1969-1974 from Sesame Workshop and Sony Wonder. The three-DVD set hit shelves Oct. 24 at $39.98.

At 72, Spinney is still going strong, performing Big Bird and Oscar with no difficulty, and has no plans to let up any time soon.

Spinney's love of puppetry first bloomed at age 8, when as a child growing up in Massachusetts he was fascinated by the puppet shows at a local daycare center. Soon after, he was staging his own puppet shows out of a drafty carriage house.

Spinney expanded his puppet shows with new puppets made by his mother and put himself through art school. A performance at a festival in 1969 didn't go quite as expected when a stray spotlight disrupted Spinney's timing. That didn't matter to an attentive audience member named Jim Henson.

“He came backstage and told me, ‘I liked what you tried to do,’ Spinney remembers. Then Henson asked him to do “Sesame Street.”

“Jim had already thought out the characters,” Spinney said. “He had an incredible creative mind. He was a real genius.”

The first episode of “Sesame Street” aired on more than 170 stations and the show became a huge hit. Old School contains the complete premiere episodes from each of the first five seasons, plus clips of the classic moments from each year. Notable clips include Big Bird's first meeting with Snuffleupagus, baseball legend Jackie Robinson reciting the alphabet, Ernie singing “Rubber Duckie,” and Oscar the Grouch singing his trademark tune, “I Love Trash.”

The first five years produced 665 episodes and the show won six Emmys, but Spinney said there were a lot of kinks to work out.

“That first show is almost embarrassing; it looked so terrible,” Spinney said. “You can see we had a lot to learn.”

In the early episodes, Big Bird was portrayed as a clumsy goofball with a pointy head who kept banging into things.

“He looked absurd,” Spinney said. “Also, I didn't know what I was doing.”

To play Big Bird, Spinney manipulates the head and beak with his right hand. He has a monitor strapped to his chest to see the set, and a microphone to record the voice.

Puppetmaker Kermit Love, one of the architects of the Muppet visual style, kept adding feathers to Big Bird's head until achieving the puffy look the character is known for. Spinney also hit on the notion to portray the character with a 6-year-old's mindset, providing a higher voice to match.

“Within the first year, I think we got a lot better,” Spinney said. “In the second year, I had the monitor, so I could see what I was doing. It was much improved.”

Spinney said he would relish the emancipation of performing Oscar after a day of playing the super-sweet Big Bird. Spinney's Oscar voice was inspired by a taxi cab driver who had some unkind words for New York's mayor.

“Oscar was how Jim pictured him, a grouchy kind of guy,” Spinney said. “I had to tell the writers he's not evil; he's just grouchy.”

Longtime viewers of the show may be surprised to learn Oscar was actually orange during the first season.

“He was originally going to be purple,” Spinney said. “One day I took him out of the box, and he was green. I asked Kermit what had happened, and he told me Jim had changed his mind.”

“I used to wonder what his reason for being on the show was, but I guess it goes to show the world is made up of all types of people.”

That isn't to say Oscar hasn't developed his own fan base.

“A woman once told me she grew up in a house with her mother and her aunts — there were no men in the house — and when Oscar talked back to the grown-ups, she had never seen that before,” Spinney said. “She told me Oscar was her hero.”

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